Today we’d like to introduce you to Ellen Daehnick.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Ellen. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Like so many food entrepreneurs, I started Helliemae’s because I couldn’t find the product I craved: dark smoky caramels with a fresh, creamy texture. Even in this age of salted caramel everything, that combination is thin on the ground. I started making caramels for family, friends, and co-workers, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves a special salted caramel.
My background isn’t in food, so I had a lot to learn. I was a demographer before I did an MBA, then I was a consultant with McKinsey & Company and worked in technology. When I decided to pursue Helliemae’s, I didn’t know much about specialty food, small manufacturing, or distribution. As we got established, we made choices that are a little different from the traditional path for food brands. We still make all our own products – our 1950s French candy wrapping equipment is gorgeous, and in truth, a little temperamental – and we still self-distribute. Most of our customers come to us via our website, saltcaramels.com, or at a retail store – we work with independent food shops and gift stores across the country.
Helliemae’s is all about nostalgia, amped up with great ingredients. I always say our caramels and sauces taste like your childhood, but better.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Does anyone have a totally smooth road with food manufacturing? I don’t think it’s even possible. I love what I do, and I have a great team here in production, which makes all the difference when we address challenges. Sometimes, they are related to supply: we’ve been using only organic cream, and because of the distribution model here, it’s hard to get what we order consistently. I used to wonder what it meant when people work in “purchasing” – isn’t that like shopping? Ha! It is not – vendor management is more time-consuming than I ever imagined.
Other challenges are operational. Last year, our caramel wrapper threw a broken part during peak season. That wrapper was built in France in the 1950s, so you can’t just order a new part. And it has so many moving pieces, we don’t keep custom-made spares on hand for all of them. We were able to find a company to make a mold and get us a new part made within 72 hours, and we got back up and running. More recently, a component of the wrapper’s motor broke. The good news is we could order a new part. The bad news is it took over a week. So, I built a temporary part from a plastic spoon, a dime, and duct tape. It wasn’t pretty, but we got those caramels wrapped!
Please tell us about Helliemae’s Caramels.
Helliemae’s Caramels is known for complex caramels with a fresh, creamy texture. We’re all about nostalgia, and most of our customers love to buy our caramels as a sweet indulgence, or as a gift for occasions like birthdays and holidays. Because we can do custom packaging, we work with businesses who want to give special gifts for customers, sales teams, trade shows or other events.
Our most popular caramel is Sea Salt – that’s the first caramel we made, and it’s topped with flaky, crunchy sea salt. Almost as beloved is Whiskey Love Bomb. We make that caramel with Denver whiskey and Steen’s cane syrup, an artisan product from a family-owned business in Louisiana – it’s like molasses’ mellower cousin. The Whiskey Love Bomb caramels are topped with bourbon barrel-smoked sea salt from Kentucky, and they really are little bite-sized smoky whiskey bombs.
In the 7+ years, we’ve been in business, we’ve never compromised on quality and flavor. Whether we’re poaching organic jasmine green tea in cream for our seasonal Jasmine caramels, or sourcing the best apple cider for Harvest Apple Cider caramels in the fall, the whole team puts in the work to make a product that tastes fantastic. Everyone here wants folks to have a great experience each time they eat a Helliemae’s caramel.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
I grew up in Texas, and many of my favorite memories from childhood revolve around food. As a little kid, we’d go out to dinner at the Tex Mex restaurant in our neighborhood, Casa Elena, which was so old-school that they served tortillas and butter before you ordered, and closed the meal with flaming flan (yes, it was on fire). All the time I was growing up, my mom made pinto beans and cornbread on Sundays – even better with a fresh green onion on the side. In high school, the first time I ate Vietnamese food – the fried egg rolls wrapped in cool crunchy greens and dipped in nuoc mam were a revelation to me. I feel like I was lucky to have all those food memories because I call on them when I’m making something new – whether it’s dinner for my family or a new product at Helliemae’s. Memories of desserts my mom made were the inspiration for our salted caramel banana pudding, and every time we make it, I’m back in Houston as a kid.
- We make 5 kinds of caramels year-round, with 5 limited-time seasonal caramels.
- Our small gift boxes are 10 each, and we have cello bags of caramels with ribbon for 16 and 26.
- We also offer gift sets for 50, and caramel sauce in 3 flavors for 15.
- Website: saltcaramels.com
- Phone: 303-834-7048
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: instagram.com/helliemaes
- Facebook: facebook.com/helliemaes
- Twitter: twitter.com/helliemaes